By Air Force Master Sgt. Luke Johnson
943rd Rescue Group
DAVIS MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz., Jan. 5, 2012 – Southern Arizona draws visitors this time of year who want a brief respite from winter weather. Unfortunately, many of those visitors are homeless teens who migrate here to escape the cold.
Air Force Master Sgt. Ruby Zarzyczny, first sergeant with the 306th Rescue Squadron here, decided to get involved with the national organization "Stand Up for Kids" to help get children the resources they need to get off the streets.
"I'm going to school for social work, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get some street experience working with homeless kids," Zarzyczny said.
Stand Up for Kids is the nation's largest all-volunteer organization working with homeless teens and streets kids.
"We are 100 percent volunteer operated and managed," said Ben Buehler-Garcia, executive director of Tucson's Stand Up For Kids chapter. "We also depend significantly on contributions of both materials and cash to fund our efforts."
Buehler-Garcia said the United States has 1.3 million to 1.5 million homeless youth under 18.
"Homeless youth are different from homeless adults, in that they work really hard to stay under the radar," said Buehler-Garcia, a six year veteran of the program. "As sad as it may seem, for many of our kids, living under a bridge in Tucson is better than what they ran away from."
Having spent some time homeless as a teenager and relying on the kindness of strangers, Zarzyczny said, she knows what it feels like to be a kid without a home. Volunteering for Stand Up for Kids is her way of giving back to those who helped her through difficult times as a teenager.
"If it was not for a family taking me in, I would not have graduated from high school," she added. "Who knows what I would be today?"
Her experiences as a homeless teenager not only inspired her to join the Air Force Reserve, Zarzyczny said, but also motivated her to become a first sergeant and give back to the airmen who have supported her over the years.
"In my final years of serving in the Air Force Reserve, I want to give back by helping others," she said. "As a first sergeant, people are our business. I believe in that motto."
The program trains volunteers to be outreach counselors and befriend the children. The volunteers also provide hygiene items and snacks to distribute.
"Handing out these items shows the kids that we care about them," Zarzyczny said. "Most of these kids don't trust adults, because adults are the ones that are hurting them."
The first sergeant emphasized that most of the kids come from troubled homes and decided living on the streets would be better. Most have tried foster care, she added, but many find themselves back on the street.
"I think it's because they are suffering from abuse, neglect, detachment [or] substance abuse and are acting out in ways that most foster caregivers or agencies do not have the resources or patience to handle," she explained.
Living on the streets of Tucson is a daunting experience for a homeless kid, Zarzyczny said, and providing snacks and a caring ear to the troubled teens makes the experiences worthwhile for her.
"The sad part was watching them walk away knowing they had no home to go to, no warm bed to sleep in, but would be sleeping on the ground somewhere in the streets of Tucson," she said.
The Stand Up For Kids Tucson Chapter is a virtual operation with no physical office or outreach center. "We don't have offices or paid staff," Buehler-Garcia said. "All we have is a cell phone, website and a donated storage shed."
The organization is looking for volunteers in a variety of skill sets. Buehler-Garica said the organization's largest need is for street outreach. Volunteers must undergo a background check prior to working with the children.
"I think it's important for people to be involved in their community and its issues, whether its homelessness, solar energy or whatever they care about," Zarzyczny said. "Instead of talking about it, reading about it or complaining, whether that is writing a check or volunteering. … take the first step."